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Fresh Expressions giving birth to new forms of church

Fresh Expressions giving birth to new forms of church

February 2008

The Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England and the Methodist Church is built on firm biblical, theological and sociological foundations, concludes a book of essays answering the big questions about the idea of a mission-shaped church launched by Church House Publishing today on Tuesday.

Mission-shaped Questions tackles some of the common queries and myths about fresh expressions of church head-on and argues that embracing a mixed-economy church is not the preserve of a certain type of churchmanship or something that should be seen as a 'bolt-on' to 'normal church'.

Edited by Dr Steven Croft, the Archbishops' Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions, Mission-shaped Questions explores some of the key issues facing churches as they seek to develop new ways of 'being and doing church' for the twenty-first century, in a society that is becoming increasingly mobile, less socially cohesive, and has a weaker understanding of the Christian faith than older generations.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has welcomed the book's insights, commenting: "If we are to grow and mature as a mixed economy Church, there are hard questions to be asked and answered.

"We need first-class thinking to back up and support all that is happening at local level. I hope this collection will get the attention it richly deserves."

The collection of essays by respected thinkers in the field addresses some of the big theological and practical issues that church leaders have grappled with as they have implemented ideas from the Mission-shaped Church report. It follows a series of day conferences held during 2007 across the country, sponsored by Fresh Expressions, called 'Hard Questions'. These events featured theologians discussing key subjects, followed by questions to the speakers and a panel discussion with practitioners and church leaders.

The book includes contributions on issues such as the definition of church, sacramental ministry in fresh expressions, the evidence for the existence of fresh expressions in the New Testament, and how a mixed-economy Church can connect with contemporary spirituality.

Among the essays, the Rev Canon Professor Loveday Alexander, Professor of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield and Canon Theologian at Chester Cathedral, embarks on a detailed study of the evidence in the Acts of the Apostles, suggesting that the early church also struggled with the tensions between forming a solid institution and also reaching those at its edges.

Similarly, Professor James Dunn, Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the University of Durham, points to the radical New Testament ideas that define Christianity: the acute sense of being a new movement, unshackled by tradition and defining itself in relation to Jesus Christ. These demonstrate that fresh expressions of church are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.

Elsewhere in the collection, the Rev Angela Tilby, vicar of St Benet's, Cambridge and former Vice-Principal of Wescott House, tackles the traditional reticence of some Anglo-Catholics when it comes to 'doing mission'. By drawing on the strengths within the Catholic expression of church for liturgy and sacramental life, Rev Tilby argues, fresh expressions can begin to build bridges between "a culture increasingly detached from its Christian roots and the Church which connects human beings with Jesus of Nazareth".

In explaining that the Church exists through time, and that it does not exist for itself but for the transformation of the world, Rev Tilby highlights some potential pitfalls for churches seeking to respond to popular culture.

She ultimately argues that more time is needed for fresh expressions to develop within the Catholic tradition that can truly prepare people to experience the order of liturgy and the wonder of the sacraments.

Elsewhere in the book, Professor John Hull, a lecturer at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, urges the mixed-economy church to take the biblical prophetic tradition seriously, and to focus on building the kingdom of God rather than focusing on growing the membership of the Church.

Professor Hull argues that fresh expressions can play an instrumental part in furthering the mission of God, but only when it is understood as an agent of that mission in building the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile the Rev Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops' Council, surveys the evidence of major enthusiasm for launching fresh expressions across the country: in 2005, half of Church of England parishes indicated to their dioceses that they had been involved in some sort of fresh expression since 2000, or that they intended to do so in the next two years.

Rev Barley suggests that fresh expressions have the potential to "significantly change the fortunes of church attendance in the twenty-first century" if they can respond to the call of God "doing new and sometimes diverse things" across the country, by being both "culturally relevant yet rooted in Gospel values".

Mission-shaped Questions is available at www.chpublishing.co.uk

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